One of the most infuriating opinions I often overhear is this degradation of poverty, of those so down on their luck they’re homeless or panhandle on the side of the street, or need assistance with bills or health care. I hear too many people say they deserve it, or they’re freeloaders, or drug addicts, or basically just worthless non-people, people whose existence apparently doesn’t count anymore.
There are a lot – a lot – of things I could say in reply to this opinion. And sometimes I do – and yet, there’s a very specific memory I have, one that stuck with me for a few years. I wrote about it a while back, and any time I reread it, I just think – yes. This is why it matters.
As we turned off of Third Street, and onto Grant, we passed a woman standing on the corner. She looked tired. Not in the I didn’t get enough sleep last night way. More I’m tired of how hard life is, all the time, nonstop sort of way.
Lauren, Becky, and I had just spent the morning lounging on the IU campus in the sunlight, and then had a delicious lunch at a Creole and Canjun style restaurant. We were tipsy on sunshine and laughter.
We drove past this woman and I read the small cardboard sign she was holding: Single mother. 2 kids. Homeless. Anything will help.
She looked tired, but strong as she stood there at the corner. Cars rolled by, people on the sidewalks walked around her. It seemed like she was completely resigned to the fact that most people were going to overlook her, let their eyes wash right over her and pretend not to see her, a person. But she felt like she had to at least try.
We paused at the stop sign and I purposefully didn’t look at her. I started to be one of those people that walk on by without acknowledging her.
In today’s society, we’re trained not to notice those people. Don’t give money to the panhandlers, the street musicians, the guy with his outstretched cup and his loyal dog. They’re just going to use the money for drugs or liquor, and stay on the street. Whatever their sob story is, it’s fabricated. They did this to themselves. Their dogs, their children, whatever, are just ploys for sympathy, to get your money and keep being a no-good drifter.
That’s what we’re taught to think, that’s how we’re programmed to respond. Protect yourself first, let other people take care of themselves first.
We pulled away from the stop sign and proceeded through the intersection. And it was like there was a hook in my heart. It hurt to drive away and ignore that woman.
“I kinda want to go back,” I admitted quietly.
“Yeah?” asked Becky and Lauren.
“Yeah. I don’t care, I don’t care if she uses the money for drugs or booze or for her kids or for whatever, I just kinda want to go back.”
I spoke hesitantly, not too forcefully, as if I wasn’t 100% committed to the idea. I was afraid that Lauren and Becky would think I was being naive, quixotic, stupid. That they’d remind me of all the rules adults had pressed on us growing up — don’t talk to strangers, ignore the street people.
Luckily, Lauren and Becky are two of my very best friends for a reason. Sensing my hesitation to make them turn the car around just so I could make myself feel better, Lauren made an executive decision and turned a corner to head back.
I can’t say why I felt so strongly about it. I just knew that there were three cash dollars in my wallet. I wasn’t saving them for anything in particular, and if they’d stayed in my wallet that day, they would have been used only on Diet Mountain Dews from the vending machine at work, or something equally frivolous, equally unnecessary.
Whatever that lady was going to spend the money she gathered today on — hopefully for her kids and herself, but regardless — she needed it bad enough to stand on a street corner and beg for money. She subjected herself to ridicule and judgement for it. She knew no one even really saw her. No one cared how she got to that point. No one wanted to empathize with her, no one wanted to see any sort of connection or similarity with her. No one wanted to admit they themselves could be a bad car wreck or a lost job or a devastating diagnosis away from becoming her.
I don’t need a Diet Mountain Dew that badly. No one does.
“I’ve got three dollars,” I said as I pulled them out of my wallet.
“Here’s two,” said Becky, handing the cash to me from the backseat.
Lauren mistakenly pulled onto a one way street, and had pulled off until she had room to turn around.
“OK, here’s five, I think,” she added. She got us turned around and on the right track.
Becky dug a little deeper, “Oo, I found three more.”
I straightened all the money, laid it out flat. Lauren approached the intersection again, and pulled off into a quick street parking spot. I got out of the car and scampered across the crosswalk.
I was nervous. I felt on the spot, afraid that the passerby would judge me as stupid or naive, afraid the woman on the corner would be mean to me.
I walked up to the woman and handed her our stack of one dollar bills, whatever we could dig out of our wallets.
Her face. Ya’ll. Her face.
I completely accept that there is a possibility this was all an act, a really good performance on her part.
But I don’t think so. I’m good at reading people, I’m good at picking up their emotions.
The relief on this woman’s face. The gratitude. The way she said, “Thank you, thank you SO much,” in such an earnest, heartbreaking, genuine manner. Like I was the first person to actually see her, all day. Maybe I was. The intensity of it all was so palpable that I felt stuck in a moment of time. So much so that I, confessed agnostic spiritual hippie tree hugger, said, “God bless,” before I walked away, and meant it.
The whole exchange probably took 30 seconds tops. I was out of the car, across the road, and back again in less time than it took for the song on the iPod in the car (probably Jefferson Airplane) to switch over to the next.
But I got in the car in tears. Her reaction hit me that hard.
I’m not a saint. I watch MamaSuh do amazing good deeds and selfless works every single day and I know I’m not remotely in the same ballpark as she is. I’m selfish and I’m lazy and I want to spend my time and my money on me and not anyone else.
Something about that woman called to me that day as we drove by. It’s easy to spot someone down on their luck and see them as a them, someone who is different from us. And all it took was her simple, beautiful moment of gratitude to remind me — despite my own inhibitions and preconceptions — that she is a human being too. Someone who has felt as lost and confused as I have, if not more. Someone who has loved and lost just as much as I have, if not more. Someone who deserved the opportunity to change, the opportunity to move on – just as I have changed, and tried to move on.
Lauren put the car in gear and pulled back into traffic. We were back on track for out afternoon. I had this choked up feeling in my chest and my cheeks and my eyes, the feeling I get a lot where there are just too many emotions inside my body and the only way to get them out is to scream or cry, or scream and cry, and I didn’t really want to do that right then.
“I’m just…so sad,” I finally said, knowing that Lauren and Becky would understand what I wasn’t really saying out loud.
Lauren reached out and took my hand. “She’s gonna be fine, Em. She really, really will be.”